Mariah Carey’s voice cracked in emotion during “I’ll Be There.” Brooke Shields broke down recalling Michael Jackson as the Little Prince. Even Usher took off his sunglasses, revealing how pained he was by the sight of Michael Jackson’s brilliant gold casket on the floor of the Staples Center.
But the most indelible moment in the 2 1/2 hour memorial ceremony was the sight of Jackson’s daughter, Paris, on the podium. The 11-year-old unexpectedly took the microphone and spoke for the first time to a worldwide audience, bidding her father farewell.
“I just wanted to say, ever since I was born Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him so much.”
With that the sobbing girl fell into the arms of her aunt, Janet Jackson. Many of the 21,000 audience members audibly choked back tears. Some wept.
“It broke me down,” said Cynthia Moutin, 43, from Freemont, Calif. “When Paris spoke, when she called him Daddy. That was the last straw.”
“I’ve never seen a girl love her daddy as much as Paris loved Michael,” longtime Jackson collaborator Kenny Ortega told TIME, speaking about the emotional moment. “It wasn’t planned. She was also his number one fan. And it came through there.”
Michael’s three children, sitting just feet away from his casket, have been the subject of intense curiosity and mystery in their short lives. The sons and daughter of the world’s most intriguing and often bizarre performer, even their exact origins are a mystery. Before today, they have almost always worn masks or veils in the rare times they have been photographed.
But to the surprise of the memorial organizers the children took front row seats at an event broadcast live on every major network and around the world. And Paris’ words made it abundantly clear that Jackson a controversial subject in life and in death was also someone’s beloved father.
Randy Phillips, the CEO of promoter AEG Live, was directing events off-stage when Paris took the microphone. “I lost it,” he told TIME afterward. “I almost short-circuited my walkie-talkie crying into it. That made the whole thing personal.”
“I didn’t even know they were coming,” says Ortega. “That surprised me. It was wonderful that the family felt they had the strength to get through this.”
While the stage cameras kept away from the children, most eyes in the auditorium were fixed on the three in the front row next to their grandparents Katherine and Joe Jackson. Seven-year-old Prince Michael II, known as Blanket, held a Michael Jackson doll. Eldest son Michael Joseph Jr., 12, held the memorial program and chewed gum vigorously. Paris kept close to her grandmother.
Rev. Al Sharpton addressed the children directly, after a surprisingly stirring speech on Michael’s cultural and race-relations impact that had the audience on its feet cheering. “There wasn’t anything strange about your Dad,” he said, moving his eyes to the three. “What was strange was what he had to deal with.” The children applauded along with the rest of the crowd.
Such moments of poignancy were there from the moment Jackson was carried into the auditorium, in a flower-draped casket on the backs of his brothers to the sounds of stirring gospel music. While the casket appearance was not a total surprise, the effect on the audience was one of awe. Before a voice shouted “I love you, Michael,” the auditorium was positively still.
There were odd moments as well: acts, including the final number, that didn’t work and unexplained delays. In fact, the family’s private ceremony at Forest Lawn kept the televised world waiting a half hour past schedule. “I probably lost two inches of height over that [delay],” Phillips said.
But in the end the memorial hit more right notes than wrong. “I gauge it from the reactions I got looking at the front row and looking into the rafters and seeing the fans,” says Ortega. “I felt like we got a little closure today. We remembered our boy.”
There was very little time to reflect once the lights went up after the 2 1/2 hour tribute. Ushers gently directed the audience to exits as black bunting was pulled from velcro rail attachments. Scores of Staples Center workers snapped up folding chairs. The Michael Jackson Memorial set was giving way to the Ringling Brothers Circus, with a new spotlight scheduled to go on in just a few hours. The circus elephants had been walked, into holding facilities in the arena earlier in the morning, even before the first memorial ticket holder had been let in.
“Michael Jackson if anyone would have loved the irony of that,” Phillips said.
See TIME’s full Michael Jackson coverage.